Specialty Food Magazine


Specialty Food Magazine is the leading publication for retailers, manufacturers and foodservice professionals in the specialty food trade. It provides news, trends and business-building insights that help readers keep their businesses competitive.

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Page 58 of 139

producer profile In 1999 she landed a Bay Area job in the environmental con- sulting industry, doing field-testing of soil and groundwater and working with contractors. "It was interesting but I wasn't fulfilled," she says. "I wasn't in control of my own destiny." After three years she walked away from a lucrative career. A year of soul-searching ensued. Keane returned to Ireland and ambled around, visiting farmers markets and getting in touch with the artisan food movement. "I also did a lot of baking and fell back in love with food," she recalls. At the end of 2004 she returned to San Francisco, with sev- eral ideas but no concrete answer for her next chapter. One Sunday she invited some friends over for dinner and was inspired to make a batch of caramel squares. "This is your career!" they declared, enchanted by the combination of rich f lavors and the interplay of creamy and crunchy textures. The shortbread foundation was but- tery and firm yet crumbly, the caramel layer gooey, the chocolate topping smooth and snappy. Her American friends urged her to introduce them to the U.S. marketplace. "Even then it took a while to sink in," Keane admits. "I had a hard time accepting that cookies were going to be my business, that it could be enough to leave a career with a good income." At the same time she recognized she was in the right place for such an endeavor. "In San Francisco it's so open-minded. It's a great launching pad to start an artisan food business," she says. Powering Through Big Challenges Keane enrolled in business and entrepreneurship classes and joined mentorship groups. From the encouragement she received she knew she was on the right path. She drew up a business plan and was accepted at a local incubator food kitchen, La Cocina. The com- munity spirit of fellow entrepreneurs, most of whom were women, helped her get through roadblocks, sharing good days and bad. Clairesquares launched in 2006, but success was not instant. By this time, Keane's sister Ann-Marie had also moved to the U.S. and was working as a real estate appraiser in Las Vegas. As Keane continued to test recipes, she earned a little money on the side by working for her sister. Not only was she missing her former income, ingredients were expensive. She insisted on using local butter and unbleached f lour and pricier cane sugar instead of corn syrup. The chocolate was Belgian, simply because that was what Keane grew up eating and she treasured the childhood association. "There were many dark moments," Keane says of getting the business off the ground. "The caramel was the [most finicky] part to scale up." After handcrafting the squares proved too time- consuming, she invested $10,000 in a caramel-making machine and labored over how to keep the ingredient from crystallizing. "It was hair-pulling frustration, incredibly difficult. In my learning curve I lost loads of batches, but I knew it was going to simplify things in the long run." The failures made her try harder, and she refused to give up. She was determined to use no additives or preservatives. Experts came by the test kitchen to assist her efforts and she eventually learned how to make perfect caramel every time. Meanwhile, she had gone through all the money she had saved as an environmental consultant. She cashed in her 401(k). Store demos kept her spirits up. People continually confirmed they loved the cara- mel squares and hadn't tasted anything like them before. "That kind of feedback was fuel to the fire to keep me going," she says. Fostering Creativity It wasn't until 2010 that Clairesquares turned a corner financially. In 2012 she switched production to a co-packer in the East Bay, which freed her up to develop new products, such as Buttery Shortbread Squares, which became a sofi Finalist for outstanding cookie. Keane found that when she was producing all the products herself she became frazzled. "The business was running me—I wasn't running the business," she says. "The co-packer gave me critical space in my head. Now I can spend time thinking about my vision for 2015 and how I am going to execute it." CLAIRE KEANE Age: 39 Years in specialty food: 8 Favorite food: Dessert, of course. Anything to do with caramel. Least favorite food: Olives Last thing I ate and loved: Sweet almond cake at b. patisserie in San Francisco If I weren't in the food business I'd be in: Environmental consulting One piece of advice I'd give to a new food business: Be prepared for a long journey and have mentors all along the way. Set aside a rainy-day fund and don't quit your day job until you know your business is really on a firm foundation. Keane has held to an Irish theme for all of the products she's developed. 56 ❘ SPECIALTY FOOD MAGAZINE specialtyfood.com

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